• MVVA’s concept for Harold Simmons Park includes a re-naturalized floodway and overlook parks surrounding the levees on the east and west sides of the Trinity River. - rendering courtesy MVVA

Since last covered in Texas Architect in 2017, Dallas’ bold endeavor to build a great series of parks along the Trinity River continues to progress, albeit more slowly than many in the community had hoped. That said, the scope and breadth of the project has become even more fine-grained, yet broader and more innovative, particularly as related to its signature element, the 210-acre Harold Simmons Park (HSP), adjacent to downtown. Many facets of the Trinity project — not only the physical design of HSP, but also the community outreach, economic development, and urban design — are being pushed well beyond those of previous Dallas initiatives. 

After Trinity Parkway (aka the “zombie toll road”) was killed by the Dallas City Council in 2017, it was hoped that the design of HSP would move quickly ahead, and in fact, that did happen. After extensive discussions, the City of Dallas contracted with nonprofit Trinity Park Conservancy to lead fundraising, design, operations, maintenance, and programming for the park. 

The Conservancy formalized agreements with the multidisciplinary design team of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), responsible for successful urban parks across the U.S., including Brooklyn Bridge Park and Tulsa’s Gathering Place. The MVVA team continued to develop concepts that pursued a different vision for HSP than had previous park schemes, still working within the framework of existing approvals. 

MVVA deliberately turned away from previous formal planning schemes, instead exploring concepts that would integrate natural processes into the park design, especially those related to the river’s tendency to swing from near-rivulet to f lat-out f lood. Rather than trying to “tame” the Trinity, MVVA’s designs incorporate the different moods of the river, creating a variety of park experiences. Whether the Trinity is up, down, or in-between, visitors will be able to enjoy the park, their experience likely varying from one visit to the next. 

This f lexibility does not come easily and requires careful analysis of critical aspects of the river environment, including topography, geology, landscape, habitat, and (especially) hydrology. Extensive computer models guide the designers as they consider design moves and their impact (often interrelated) on each of those aspects. The microscopic level at which these studies are conducted is astonishing, and the results are often surprising and counterintuitive. 

A key facet of MVVA’s work has been realization that the cross section of the Trinity Corridor — historically a ditch f lanked by a broad plain on either side, edged by earthen levees — is not necessarily a given, and that each of these elements — channel, f loodway, levee — can be sculpted, provided that hydrological effects are fully accounted for. The resulting design concepts ref lect this, exhibiting an astonishing variety in the shape of the river channel, the f lood plain on either side, and the levees themselves. As water levels rise and fall, these elements will be transformed, creating an ever-changing park experience. 

As noted above, the MVVA design team is multidisciplined, and it became clear early in the process that the Conservancy, in order to be an effective, informed client, needed to have a similar breadth of knowledge within its staff and leadership. Thus, Deedie Rose, chair of the Conservancy board, tasked the author with creating and chairing a Design Advocacy Committee to work with Conservancy staff (led by architect Brent Brown, AIA) and the MVVA team. The resulting committee includes architects, landscape architects, developers, water experts, historians, and anthropologists, drawn from the professions, government, and business. 

In 2019, much effort of the MVVA team and the Conservancy technical staff was focused on working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) to analyze and align preliminary designs with previous approvals. Unexpectedly, the ACOE’s own (over $350 million) f lood protection project for the Trinity, expected to last for decades and proceed incrementally as funded by Congress, was fully funded in 2019 (f lood protection for Texas cities being a priority, post-Harvey) and is moving ahead. Though the ACOE project’s geography is much more expansive, it does overlap the 210 acres of HSP, requiring additional coordination. 

The upshot is that the ACOE, the City of Dallas, MVVA, and Conservancy are engaged in a series of discussions to coordinate ACOE f lood protection measures with the design of HSP. Ultimately, there is optimism that these conversations may actually provide financial and timing benefits for the park, but needless to say, they are complex, highly technical, and slow. 

However, while discussions and approvals of HSP itself move more slowly than hoped, the Conservancy (realizing that what happens outside the levees will be as important as what’s between the levees) has moved aggressively to identify potential impacts on neighborhoods, and to mitigate the bad while optimizing the good. 

The Conservancy established a robust public outreach campaign, led by its Community Engagement and Inclusive Development Committee, chaired by architect and board member Darren James, FAIA. Since 2017, the committee has held many community meetings, aimed at making the design process as transparent as possible, including a very well-attended behind-the-scenes look at the design process last April. 

Further, the MVVA design of the park itself has extended beyond the levees and the f loodway to include signature overlooks on either side of the river. While still being designed, these will feature a variety of recreational opportunities for residents and visitors, including play and picnic areas and viewing platforms. 

The Conservancy also commissioned a team led by Dallas landscape architects Studio Outside to identify existing and potential connections from HSP and the overlooks into adjacent neighborhoods, and to explore how these can be enhanced to either spur economic development or to preserve sensitive neighborhood character, as appropriate. Thus far, the studies have identified numerous and significant opportunities that should inform future urban design and economic policies for adjacent neighborhoods. 

In a similar vein, it has long been realized that HSP will spur economic development on both sides of the river but that the quality of that development is not assured. In 2019, in a case of “putting your money where your mouth is,” the Conservancy purchased (with funds unrelated to HSP) a sturdy 250,000-sf former jail located on the downtown side of the river, with the intention of renovating it for a new, non-penal purpose. No definitive plans have been developed, but possibilities include — after a complete reskinning — affordable housing, park-related retail and services (bike shops, etc.), and offices for the Conservancy. 

While the design of HSP works its way through an often frustrating approval process, there is increasing realization that its emphasis on public outreach and transparency, economic development, and integration of nature and urban form are truly on the cutting edge and place it at the center of a global movement of Watershed Urbanism. This is perhaps best illustrated by an upcoming exhibit developed for the prestigious 2020 Venice Architecture Biennale by Adrian Parr, member of the Conservancy’s Design Advocacy Committee. Parr is also dean of the U T A rlington College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs and co-chair of water accessibility and sustainability for UNICEF. Titled “Watershed Urbanism and the DFW Metroplex,” the exhibit will showcase HSP, along with other innovative North Texas projects uniting natural processes with urban development. 

Robert L. Meckfessel, FAIA, is president of DSGN Associates and currently serves on the board of the Trinity Park Conservancy as chair of its Design Advocacy Committee

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